[The following essay is excerpted from US Senator Chris Coons’ foreword to Paul C. McGlasson, Choose You This Day: The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Politics of Trumpism (2nd ed., Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]
“I’m praying for you!” I have heard this phrase many times in recent years, from neighbors and friends and members of my congregation, from folks I have met in my state, across our country, and around the world. Often it is delivered with a gentle tone, conveying genuine concern for me in a difficult and divisive time. Sometimes it’s delivered with a different intonation, suggesting someone who disagrees with my politics but who genuinely prays for me as a believer. Occasionally it’s delivered with an intensity and a rising tone that conveys, well, hostility and a sense that only God could save me from the clear and abundant errors of my ways.
So much meaning packed into just four words. No matter how it’s meant, I appreciate all those who pray for me, and all who serve in elected office, because it’s a difficult thing to put oneself and one’s family into the public. It’s even more difficult when you try to convey respect for your constituents of all faiths and those who are humanists or who follow no faith, while also trying to be true publicly and privately to one’s own faith and beliefs.
My background and context
I was raised Presbyterian, a member of the PCUSA denomination, in an active congregation that had a strong youth ministry, meaningful mission work, and solid preaching. My parents’ example was understated but powerful—they helped teach Sunday school, volunteered for church events, and engaged in mission work, whether welcoming a Vietnamese refugee family, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or serving with prison ministry in our state prison.
The impact of those early years only became clear to me years later, when I spent time in Kenya and South Africa as a young adult in my early twenties. In months spent volunteering with the South African Council of Churches, I experienced for the first time a context—South Africa under apartheid—where a white supremacist government rooted its political agenda and theology in one reading of the Bible while a resistance movement also rooted its activism and opposition to the government in the same Bible, but read and applied differently. I got a crash course in practical theology, and in the real-world consequences of serious theological error.
At the time, I had no context in which to read this, as I had not taken religion courses in college and had little exposure to the Black church tradition in America or any sense of liberation theology or of Christian nationalism. That education and context would come a few years later when I spent three years at Yale Divinity School getting a master of arts in religion, as well as interning for the interfaith Downtown Cooperative Ministry in New Haven, Connecticut. In the years following divinity school, deeper exposure to a wide range of churches and faiths, time spent worshipping and working in communities suffering with poverty, crime, over-incarceration, mental health and housing challenges, and working with young people broadened my understanding of faith in action and context for many more Americans than I ever knew as a young Delawarean.
Among the most powerful experiences I have had as a senator was joining Representative John Lewis and dozens of the veterans of the American civil rights movement on an annual pilgrimage to some of the key sites of our civil rights history, from Memphis and Tuscaloosa, to Orangeburg and Charleston, to Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Across five pilgrimages with the Faith and Politics Institute and through the remarkable witness of Representative John Lewis, I came to see and better understand the political and religious underpinnings and consequences of white supremacy in our country, as well as the spiritual and theological underpinnings of the civil rights movement that ended Jim Crow, or our own version of legalized apartheid in the US.
My own denomination split into a northern and southern Presbyterian church over slavery and a deep disagreement over the reading of Scripture as applied to racial inequality, a rift that was only healed a century later in 1983. In recent years, that same denomination split again over the reading of Scripture as it applies to the role of sexual orientation and identity and the proper role and witness of the church. Only with the insights and experience gained in divinity school and more than twenty years serving in local and federal office have I begun to fully process what was happening in South Africa in 1987, what was happening in the United States from the civil rights movement to the modern day, and the challenges—both theological and political addressed in this book.
My approach to faith and politics
I came to my service in the Senate having had powerful experiences about the intersection of faith and politics, and the importance of advancing not just personal salvation but a redressing of historic wrongs and restructuring of unjust systems. Nevertheless, I have as much as possible approached politics with an inclination towards bipartisanship, and conversations around faith and politics with a humility rooted in the awareness that scriptural interpretation— especially when seeking a clear political agenda—is a difficult and fraught undertaking. As Lincoln said in his second inaugural: “both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.” My predecessor in the Senate, now President Joe Biden, often showed what’s possible in the Senate and now as president by both preaching bipartisanship and showing a willingness to see the humanity and decency even in his most difficult and intransigent political opponents.
I have been active in faith and politics as a senator, and I have been a regular participant in the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast in the Senate. I have twice served as the co-chair of the National Prayer Breakfast as a result, including twice while President Trump was in office. My experiences in those roles and in that time are beyond the scope of a foreword, but suffice it to say they gave me an intense introduction to the former president’s inner circle of spiritual advisors, a personal exposure to his views on Christian faith and its intersection with politics, and put me in the unusual situation of praying with and for President Trump before a national audience just a few weeks into his first year as president.
I believe deeply in the need for humility and a willingness to seek reconciliation with others, especially those with whom we seem to share a faith tradition. Former President Trump is, after all, someone raised as a fellow Presbyterian and someone who in his campaigns has professed Christian beliefs, even though expressed and applied in a series of statements and actions I found jarring and very difficult to accept or condone. The Bible teaches we should forgive our enemies seven times seven times (Matt 18:22), and that we should pray for our enemies (Matt 5:43–8). In the bipartisan prayer breakfast and in my lived experience over a dozen years as a senator, I have on many occasions had remarkable, positive experiences of genuine friendship and concern, vulnerability and positive engagement, with both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, because of things we shared either in the prayer breakfast or on the civil rights pilgrimage, and in total I am grateful for these experiences.
McGlasson’s book and key points
The vast majority of the time I have spent with congressional colleagues and my community at home in Delaware in conversations that seek to bridge faith and politics have been positive. However, in ways explored and clarified in this book, the challenge of Christian nationalism in recent years in our country presents a moral, theological, and political risk too great to let pass by without close consideration.
McGlasson begins by considering the intense and challenging context of Germany between the world wars, as National Socialism began its rise and challenged all the structures of the Weimar Republic, including the Protestant church. As McGlasson lays out in great detail, the majority of the German Protestant church initially dismissed the challenge of Nazism, then gradually came to embrace it following the voices of some of its leading theologians who through a series of errors created a construct to allow faithful German Protestants to reconcile church teachings with the growing and virulent anti-Semitism and racism of the Nazis. A smaller, hardy, and determined group of believers and theologians saw clearly the errors of National Socialism from the start and called them out, eventually issuing the Barmen Declaration and demanding that people of faith refuse to accept the Third Reich’s vision for a church as an instrument of the state, for which many paid with their lives or by being forced into exile.
McGlasson then turns to our own recent political and theological context, demonstrating ways in which the rising popularity of Christian nationalism, especially as applied to the agenda and actions of former President Trump by his religious advisors and supporters, repeats or echoes the mistakes made by those elevating one person and one ethnic group at the expense of others. McGlasson could just as well have reviewed the history of the church in South Africa during apartheid or in the US during the civil rights movement, for which other confessing church declarations were developed (The Belhar Confession, The Presbyterian Confession of 1967, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” etc.). The core principle McGlasson raises—that at a certain point patriotism and nationalism, when blindly attached to a political agenda that supports one person and ascribes to them a special dispensation by God to achieve greatness for one nation or people—rises to the level of profound error that requires being called out, named as such, and presented before the community of believers as a moment requiring not reconciliation but resistance.
In my short dozen years in the Senate, I have been blessed by two powerful examples of forgiveness, both in the context of racial injustice and violence. In Charleston, South Carolina, through a Faith and Politics pilgrimage to Mother Emmanuel AME church, I met two survivors of the horrific, racially motivated shooting by Dylan Roof of their immediate family members and congregants. Hearing their witness of forgiveness for Dylan Roof and coming to terms with their purposes for doing so was exceeded only by the repeated testimony of Representative John Lewis, who while demanding action to address unjust systems and to advance righteousness, never seemed to tire of seeking reconciliation with those willing to repent of previously held racial views or racist actions. Hearing him talk about being reconciled to a former Klansman who came to his office, confessing to having attacked John and beaten him senseless decades before during the Freedom Rides in Rocky Mount, South Carolina, was a moving experience.
Another incredibly compelling experience for me was a week spent in South Africa, discussing the liberation struggle, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and the unfinished work of South Africa’s journey to overcome gross racial inequality, on a weeklong trip with Representative Lewis and the daughter of Senator Bobby Kennedy to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his “Ripple of Hope” speech in Cape Town. Given these experiences, I feel all the more moved to both call out injustice where I see it, to act against systems of oppression, but to never give up on the possibility of reconciliation. God changes people’s hearts and makes possible progress where none thought it possible. As John would put it, making a way out of no way.
I live the tension daily between division and anger stirred by those who preach a wrongful Christian nationalism that elevates our former president above accountability and ignores his responsibility for some of the worst chapters in our recent history, from the wrongheaded Muslim travel ban that was among his first acts to the assault on the Capitol of January 6 he instigated after he lost the election of 2020. My goal in reading and recommending this book is not to show some moral superiority or to imagine some spiritual clarity that transcends the need for humility, study, and tireless efforts at reconciliation with those who have reached different conclusions on the difficult balance between the teachings of Scripture and the actions of people in public life.
Rather, my goal is to remind all of us that at times statements and actions by political leaders and the faith leaders who facilitate and endorse them can set us on a dangerous path where we risk losing more than an election or position—we risk losing the very essence of what makes us Christian. When we contort our theology to fit our political goals or political convenience, rather than allowing our politics to flow from our faith, we risk committing error. And when trained, knowledgeable, faithful leaders endorse statements and actions that demonstrably violate the most basic understanding of Jesus’ mission and calling to us, and then amplify that violation repeatedly, they can put at real risk both our faith and our democracy.
Need for a new confession
Into this space McGlasson proposes a new confession, and a new calling for a reformed mission for the ecumenical Christian church in all its challenges. The gospel is a living reality, not a dead letter. Each new generation faces fresh challenges and opportunities, including our own. We cannot afford to look back nostalgically on what Lincoln called the “dogmas of the quiet past” when we are summoned to face the turmoils of the present. In repentance, and gratitude, now, as ever, we live by hope.
Chris Coons is an American lawyer and politician serving as the junior United States senator from Delaware since 2010. A member of the Democratic Party, Coons served as the county executive of New Castle County from 2005 to 2010.
Paul C. McGlasson received his MDiv from Yale Divinity School and his PhD in systematic theology from Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, including the multivolume work Church Doctrine. He has begun a six-volume Theological Exegesis of Scripture, covering the entire Bible. The first volume, on the Pentateuch, is now available.